*Note: When I sat down to write this I said, “I think I’m going to keep this one short. Maybe even make a bulleted list.” Here I am 2,000 words later. My short list rapidly evolved into a short novel. You have been warned.
On Friday after much anticipation our permanent sites were finally revealed. I am going to be living in a rural town called Bayunca that is about 45 minutes outside of Cartagena in the district of Bolivar (if you google map it and zoom way in you can see it!).
On Tuesday after a morning of sessions with our counterparts (the English teacher from our schools we will be working with for the next two years) we headed off to our sites. The Santa Marta volunteers headed out in one van, the Barranquilla volunteers headed out on various busses, and the Cartagena volunteers went in another van. The volunteers placed in urban sites would be staying at a hotel in the center of Cartagena and those of us outside the city would be staying with families in our communities. My counterpart said there would not be time to go out to the school that first day since it was late afternoon by the time we arrived in Cartagena so I got lucky and got to stay in the hotel the first night! It was a quaint little hotel with an open air courtyard, right in the heart of downtown, and best of all the rooms had air conditioning!
This was my first time venturing outside of Barranquilla and I was excited to see a new city. I immediately fell in LOVE with Cartagena. I only had that first evening to walk around and see some of the city but it was so beautiful and has such a history. I visited the Walled City which offers breathtaking views of Bocagrande (beautiful resorts, beaches, fancy hotels, etc.) and the Caribbean sea. The center of downtown is a maze of narrow streets lined with colonial style buildings and bustling with a mix of locals and tourists from around the world. We had dinner at an adorable little restaurant where I treated myself to pasta with fresh pesto, mozzarella, and crisp delicious tomatoes!
On Wednesday morning I packed my backpack and went downstairs to wait for my counterpart who was kind enough to come pick me up. As I sat in the lobby eating my banana and staring out to the street at the backpackers, tourists, and travelers from all parts of the world passing by I couldn’t help but be amazed. I LIVE in Colombia. In just a few minutes I was going to head to the place that I will call home for the next two years of my life.
It was about a 45 minute car ride from Cartagena to the pueblo of Bayunca. As we headed out of the beautiful and peaceful scene of historic downtown Cartagena I began to notice the disparity I have been hearing so much about. Colombia ranks among the most unequal Latin American countries in terms of wealth distribution. Colombia is home to the ultra-rich and to some of the most poverty stricken communities in Latin America. Colombia works on one of the strictest stratified systems in the world. Strata 1 is the lowest and strata 6 is the highest. Only 5% of Colombia’s population is classified as a strata 6, but this 5% holds the majority of the wealth in the country. As we drove out of the city I was amazed at the level of poverty in neighborhoods literally minutes from the bustling tourist destination of downtown Cartagena with the beautiful Bocagrande skyline in the background. Soon the landscape began to change and we were surrounded by grassy fields, cows grazing, fincas (farms), and mountains covered with lush green trees. After what seemed like an eternity, I saw a sign for the turn off to Bayunca, aka my new home.
Bayunca is a relatively large pueblo, although I am not sure of the exact population. The highway runs directly through the town and is one of the two paved roads. Unfortunately I did not get to see much of the town since I was there for such a short time and spent most of it at the school, but I did take a short walking tour near the school. The houses vary greatly in condition. I saw many houses made of cement and brick with tile floors and painted walls. I also saw many houses made of wood, mud, and recycled materials such as tin. All of the roofs are made of tin, but some of the nicer houses have ceilings in the main rooms to hide the tin. It seems as if the vegetation was leveled to make the town because it is surrounded by grassy fields and trees, but none of this can be seen from within the town and it is pretty dusty with the occasional tree. The roads are dirt and have little canals on either side where waste water can run to the nearby creek (there is no sewage system). There is electricity and running water that I am told is pretty reliable. There are little tiendas and some little outdoor restaurants.
I stayed with a host family that I am pretty sure is going to be my permanent host family (although I haven’t received official word from PC). I will start by saying they were hands down the nicest people I have met in all of Colombia….possibly all of the world. In the house it is a woman named Marlene, her brother, and their 93 year old father. Marlene and her brother are both probably in their 50’s. They have a HUGE extended family who seem to just wander in and out the always open front door. Marlene has a sister named Marlin who runs the kiosk at the school I am working at and she does all of the cooking at the house even though she doesn’t live there. She also accompanied me to and from school each day, patted me on the head or stroked my hair every time she walked by, and kissed and/or crossed me every time we hadn’t seen each other in a few minutes. I pretty much love her. My house is pretty big and nice compared to the rest of the houses I saw. I stayed in Marlene’s room because something in my future room had not passed the security check yet. The house is on the main road (the highway) which is a little noisy but it means I have a paved road in front of my house. We also have a septic tank so there is no waste water running outside. The house has cielings in the bedrooms and living room, and tin roof in the center of the house and the kitchen. The kitchen has a fridge and a stove but no sink so they fill buckets of water outside to wash dishes. I had fish with every meal which was delish. They asked what kinds of things I like and don’t like which was very nice! I said I don’t drink coffee which usually is just ignored here in Colombia and I get coffee anyways…but Marlene said, “That’s good….it’s not good for your health anyways!” I told them I really like fruit and I had bananas, papaya, watermelon, and mango! They would give me a big plate of food and told me I could just eat what I wanted and then they would put whatever I didn’t finish away. LOVE IT! If this ends up being my permanent family I got seriously lucky : )
My school is called IED Bayunca and it is literally right across the street from my house (I have to run across the highway along with all of the children. As a former first grade teacher who is accustomed to snatching any kid I see approaching the smallest of streets….it is going to take some getting used to!). The school is very large as all of the students in Bayunca attend (preschool through 11th grade). There are 3,000 students who attend three jornadas (morning, afternoon, and evening). There are 6 English teachers who I will be working with. All of the teachers live in Cartagena and commute with the exception of the principal and three primary teachers who live in Bayunca. There are four buildings made of cinderblock with tin roofs. Each classroom has a whiteboard, fans, and desks as well as openings in the walls for a potential breeze to come through. I spent my two and a half days there getting to know the staff and students and they are some of the warmest, friendliest, most welcoming people I have ever met. I felt at home immediately. My first day there they gathered all of the students in the courtyard and presented me to the school. I was handed the microphone and prompted to give a speech in Spanish. I’ll spare you the details…but it ended with a thousand cheering students rushing forward to ask for my autograph (really….I signed autographs…..) On my last day of my visit I said my goodbyes to everyone and that I would be back for good in November. I had many people say, “Do you promise you’ll come back?” I feel so lucky to be at a school that is so eager to work together and I am excited to start forming relationships with the wonderful people I met!
Overall I had a very positive experience in my new home in the pueblo of Bayunca.
Will it be challanging? Yes.
- It was literally the hottest place I have ever been. Cartagena is arguably the hottest of the costal cities and Bayunca is INLAND from Cartagena. It averages 90 degrees with 90% humidity.
-I need to invest in some boots or different shoes if I am going to walk around in dirt streets (or I should say mud streets since it is the rainy season) that are flanked on either side by canals of waste water.
-I was absolutely eaten alive by mosquitoes, ants, little gnats, and anything else that can bite. My feet and ankles were swollen with bites. When I was sitting on the couch if I moved my leg a cloud of little mosquitos would fly off and then settle once again. My host mom sits with a towel to constantly swat herself to deter the bugs. Luckily frogs and lizards don’t bother me…but there are millions of them too.
-I am a little isolated from other volunteers. While it is only a 45 minute car ride into Cartagena…I don’t have a car. I have heard the bus ride can take up to 2 hours and it only comes once an hour (not necessarily on the hour). I can definitely go into Cartagena when I need to, but I have to get used to the fact that I will be spending the majority of my time in a town where I am the only person from the US.
-SPANISH. I spoke in Spanish the ENTIRE time I was in Bayunca. No one I came across in the town spoke any English, and in the school only the English teachers speak English but only when it is absolutely necessary. At the end of the day I layed down and could literally feel my head pounding from talking non-stop Spanish for 15 hours.
-The fishbowl effect. I thought I got stared at in Barranquilla because there aren’t a lot of tourists here. I have a new definition of staring after my three days in Bayunca. I am hoping this will change once people know who I am and what I am doing there.
-Rural living. While there are stores and I can get all the necessities (people live there and do just fine) I have gotten used to living in Barranquilla where I could get pretty much anything I wanted. Even American brands. This will not be the case based on what I saw. I am still not sure where the food comes from (there is no Olympica or Exito). I only saw little tiendas with snack type food and then street vendors (carts pulled by burros or people walking). There is no air conditioned mall or restaurant to go to escape the heat like I got used to doing in Barranquilla. Just me and my fan.
Will there be rewards? Absolutely.
-Spanish. While it was hard work speaking in Spanish all day, that was one of the major draws to a rural placement for me. I really want to learn Spanish and being surrounded by people who do not speak English for two years is going to be great practice.
-A new experience. I grew up in Phoenix which is a pretty huge city. I have never lived outside of a city before and I am looking forward to doing something new.
-Living somewhere I couldn’t otherwise. When I joined the Peace Corps one of the big draws for me was that I could live somewhere that I wouldn’t be able to live on my own. If I wanted to teach abroad I could move to Bogota or Lima or wherever I wanted and get a job teaching English. It would be much harder to just pick up and successfully move to Bayunca to live and work on my own.
-The school. I loved the relationships I observed between the teachers and students at my school. It was such a warm and welcoming place and I think I will look forward to going there each day. I made friends with everyone from the teachers, to cooks, to custodial staff, to office staff, and of course to students.
-Cultural experience. My family is already talking about all the things they want to do with me when I come back. Tour the town, go to church, teach me how to dance, make all kinds of food for me, etc.
-The people. I mentioned it before but every single person I met in Bayunca was beyond nice. Nice isn’t even a good enough word to describe it. There isn’t a word to describe how I feel about the people of Bayunca. I was there for two and a half days and already felt at home.
I have one more month of training before I swear in as a volunteer and then move to my new site. Look for more posts to come in the future and follow along on my journey as I get ready to say goodbye to Barranquilla and fall in love with Bayunca : )
Funny Highlights from my trip to Bayunca:
-When I finished my dinner, Marlin got super excited and started exclaiming that “She likes the food!” and “She ate it all!”. Once she had told everyone in the house, she ran outside (with my plate) to tell everyone out there.
-I had multiple people at the school ask me, “How come you’re not that white?” I didn’t know what to say so I ended up saying, “Because of the sun.” (It is really common and acceptable here to talk about color of skin. When I show people in Barranquilla pictures from my school in Bayunca they will say, “Oh the kids are really black.”)
-My host mom wanted to take a picture of me (undoubtedly to show to everyone in town after I left). She forgot, so on my last morning at the school she sent her sister to do it. Only her sister didn’t have a camera so she walked across town to get her daughter from work, who then came to the school, just to take my picture, when I happened to be standing in front of a room full of teachers. Awkward.
-The man who sells fruit from a cart in front of the school wanted to give me some fruit as a welcome gesture. I didn’t realize what was going on (I had been speaking Spanish for 12 hours straight at this point) and awkwardly kept trying to say no. He responded by trying to offer me different kinds of fruit. After my counterpart decided the awkwardness had gone on long enough he finally explained what was going on. Awkward again.
-Marlene had an appointment with the doctor in town and told me to come with her. When we got there she went into the house and got the two teenage children and made them sit and talk with me while she had her appointment. She announced that the boy speaks pretty good English and the girl never talks. Then she told me their mom used to be fat but now she’s not. Ok then.
-For lunch on my second day Marlin said I would be eating at the school. I assumed that meant in the cafeteria. Wrong. She had one of the cooks in the cafeteria cook me soup and rice and brought real plates and silver wear from home for me to eat off of. They set this up in a classroom where I ate at the teacher’s desk and she sat guard at the door shooing students away.
-On my first night I had a snake in my bedroom. I was not about to go wake up someone I had just met in the middle of the night and tell them there was a snake in my room. I also wasn’t about to kill a snake. I stared at the snake and he stared at me. We made a nonverbal agreement that I would not kill him if he would leave me alone. On the second day I had a gigantic spider in the shower with me. We did not make a similar agreement. I grabbed a broom and flung him as far as I could to be dealt with at a later time when I have a sturdier shoe.
-Marlin commented on how much water I drink (as does everyone in Colombia). The next day she gave me a new reusable water bottle from her kiosk so I will never run out of water. She kept telling anyone who would listen, “My gringa is like a fish!” To which people just continued staring at me.
You might have noticed awkwardness is a common theme for me here…..
Until next time…..paz y amor.
P.S. Thanks to everyone who has been keeping in touch and sending me updates about whats going on in your lives….I really appreciate it! I love hearing from home Also, I have recieved a lot of emails lately from prospective Peace Corps applicants. I am always happy to answer whatever questions I can….feel free to comment or send me an email (check my contact tab for email).